Photo: Laura Fuhrman/Unsplash

Over time, from the Bill of Rights in 1960 to the 1982 constitutional reform that included the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Canada encoded a right to equality regardless of personal demographics. Nevertheless, many changes and government programs later, we still live in a highly stratified world. Most programs seek to address inequality experienced by adults and older youth. This emphasis largely ignores the fact that one of the largest predictors of life success is almost entirely set in stone by the age of eight – the ability to read.

Low literacy rates have long been a common – and fully justified – focus of governments and civil society. Literacy has been proven to be a strong predictor of lifetime success, with childhood literacy gaps linked to detrimental health outcomes, poverty, high incarceration rates and high risk of injury.

What isn’t talked about enough is uneven access to literacy. There is ample evidence that there are disproportionate gaps in literacy achievement among people with learning disabilities, those of low socioeconomic status, Indigenous peoples and minorities. In the United States, only 18 per cent of Black children attain reading proficiency by the end of Grade 4 compared to 45 per cent of White children. In Canada we do not collect and analyze holistically data on literacy achievement by race, but the limited data we have, mostly from Toronto, suggest that there is a link here as well.

Traditionally, governments have recognized this gap by spending large sums of money on programs geared toward adults. These programs are necessary, but they represent an ineffective way to address these issues. For reasons having to do with evolution and modern advances, the path to literacy or illiteracy is mostly set by the age of eight. Unlike spoken language which was an early humanoid skill, reading and writing are, from an evolutionary perspective, new processes. As a result, the brain creates the pathways to reading in a much clumsier way than it creates the ability to use oral language. Oral language rests in one region of the brain and mostly requires just exposure to acquire. Reading links multiple separate parts of the brain and requires rewiring to connect these skills.

Put more simply, we learn to speak the way we learn to dance – through watching, exposure and what appears to be instinct. However, the way we learn to read is more like the way we learn to drive a car or to apply calculus – by combining various discrete tasks and skills into a new product.1 At age eight, however, the brain loses some of its neuroplasticity – so while it is still possible to teach a struggling reader at this point, it becomes increasingly resource-intensive as time passes.

Reading is a combination of a number of different pieces which our brain uses to map the visual cues of a group of letters to meaning. The process of learning to read involves mastering seemingly disparate things and then combining them into the magic that is knowledge acquisition through a page of letters. Some of these precursor skills are acquired before school starts. Gaps in those skills, as assessed through early years screening, indicate that groups of historic disadvantage – minorities, low economic status, neurodiverse individuals and Indigenous people – are already behind at about age four. Early skills include things like letter recognition (think Sesame Street), phonological awareness such as rhymes, oral language skills and others.

At this point the finger is often pointed at parents. While it is completely true that having a parent who talks, sings and reads to their child is a key component of early success, gaps in the early years are not as simple as parental attentiveness. A major distinguishing factor at this age is access to high-quality early education – that societal function we have been accustomed to thinking of as daycare to allow women to enter the workforce. Children in high-quality care settings are being educated. They receive instruction in a play-based environment in a way that is meant to improve their fundamental building blocks. In a societal mindset that “daycare” is the responsibility of families and its purpose is only to allow families to work and have children, we start building an inequality edge at an early age. This gap is not a slight deviance – research shows that children from low socioeconomic backgrounds often enter school with word gaps in the millions.

Once children enter school they begin the rigorous academic process of becoming a reader. For an adult, reading is automatic. For a child, it is the need to acquire multiple skills at rapid speed and synthesize their use. Grade 1, which some term the “reading mountain,” requires children to build on their foundation in the various strands of reading – skills that let kids break the alphabetic code and those, such as vocabulary and background knowledge, that allow them to comprehend the words they have decoded.2

Reading, as an unnatural process, is akin to learning to read music and play an instrument. It requires explicit instruction for the skill to be gained. For reading, a small percentage of children (estimated at 5 per cent) will appear to acquire this skill effortlessly, while around one third can learn to read with some broad instruction. The majority of children, however, require explicit instruction to learn to read, and still others (10–15 per cent) can learn to read only with extensive explicit instruction.

The predominant teaching philosophy in English Canada and the United States is one referred to as balanced literacy, built on programs developed by corporate heavyweights Lucy Calkins and Fontas and Pinnell. It leans heavily on guessing and guided reading rather than instruction. Using a broad instruction approach, the teacher acts more as a guide than as an instructor. On the basis of what we know about how children learn to read, that means instruction time is going to help only the first two groups – those who learn almost on their own and the group that requires minimal broad instruction. In other words, the predominant approach is setting up only 40 per cent of children for success.3 Recently, an internal memo from Lucy Calkins’s team conceded that the evidence showed their practices were flawed.4

The other school of thought, structured literacy, helps all children. Jurisdictions such as Australia, the United Kingdom and various U.S. states that have adopted this approach have been producing notable results. For example, Mississippi, which provided professional development to its teachers in structured literacy practices, was the only state to see its national standardized results at the Grade 4 level improve. Black and Hispanic students in the state narrowed the gap with their White counterparts and did better than their peers in all other states.5

Going back to the equality question, what we see is that those groups that entered school with a disadvantage aren’t receiving the “great leveller” we think we provide. The gaps widen. The reason requires a step out of the classroom. If 40 per cent of children are getting the instruction they need in school, of the remaining 60 per cent, many are learning in other ways. Whether it is a parent working with the child, resource kits from bookstores with extra supports, tutors, summer camps or learning institutes like Kumon and Sylvan, many parents with large amounts of capital are supplementing classroom instruction with additional time and/or funds. Since minorities are overrepresented in low socioeconomic status, this requirement to pursue outside help has a negative impact on those who are already disadvantaged. It also completely fails those with learning disabilities.

In Canada, no province has moved to a structured approach, though some steps are happening unevenly. The Ontario Human Rights Commission is currently completing an inquiry into the systemic discrimination caused by the balanced literacy method for people with reading disabilities. Since there is another method, structured literacy, that meets the requirement of universal design – in other words, would help everyone – the fact that 53 per cent of those with learning disabilities do not meet the provincial Grade 3 standard is avoidable. Those with learning disabilities can learn to read with early diagnoses and structured approaches. The failure to provide this means that in Ontario, over 50 per cent of children with learning disabilities are not at grade level at the end of Grade 3.6

To improve equalities in the next generation we need to prioritize early education and recognize the important role it plays in life outcomes. Part of this requires supporting our teachers and administrators to learn high-impact practices and requiring that educator training programs provide better instruction in the science of reading and methods of teaching reading. Currently, neither early childhood educators nor elementary teacher trainees receive a comprehensive education in how reading works and how to teach it. We can also retool the various volunteer tutoring programs to provide more structured (while still fun) support.

Fixing inequality in literacy acquisition will not fix everything – systemic inequality is broad-ranging and multifaceted. It is, however, a way of moving the starting line for those who are disadvantaged so that it is closer to that of their peers.

Notes

1 Augusto Buchweitz, Language and Reading Development in the Brain Today: Neuromarkers and the Case for Prediction, Jornal de Pediatria, Vol. 92.

2 Scarborough’s Reading Rope

3 Chart of Statistics Underpinning Nancy Young’s The Ladder of Reading Infographic

4 Emily Hanford, Influential Literacy Expert Lucy Calkins is Changing Her Views, APM Reports, October 16, 2020.

5 Kayleigh Skinner, Mississippi Students No. 1 in the Country for Reading Improvements, Biloxi SunHerald, November 1, 2019.

6 Ontario Human Rights Commission, Right to Read: Inquiry into Reading Disabilities Backgrounder.

We live in an age where one of the goals of modern functioning governments is to use evidence to ensure that society is at its best and taxes are responsibly spent. Simultaneously, we live in a society where policy decisions don’t actually consider the evidence on a regular basis. This leads to both continued inequality and lost opportunity.

If that seems a bit esoteric, consider these examples:

  • Ample evidence from longitudinal studies shows that investing in early childhood education produces adults who perform better in society and require less in the way of social programs. Furthermore, cutting-edge research reveals the physiological dimension of this effect. New skills learned in early childhood are wired on the brain – these skills are actually encoded in a person’s body, and that coding becomes increasingly inefficient after the age of eight. Yet we still see the early years of education mostly as child-minding rather than citizen-shaping.
  • We have comprehensive evidence that companies that use diverse suppliers and have a diverse board perform better on the stock market. Yet many businesses continue to pay no more than lip service to company diversity.
  • Evidence demonstrates that migraines cause countries to lose billions of dollars in productivity, not to mention the substantial health care expenditures required to address acute attacks, yet very little research into prevention has been funded.

This is a short list – I could fill a book with other examples. That society is harmed when the evidence isn’t followed is beyond dispute. So why, in so many cases, is the evidence not followed?

Why this doesn’t happen and how it can have major implications is currently unfolding in real time with Canada’s COVID-19 response. Processes that previously took decades are playing out in weeks. As a result, we can isolate some of the structural issues that were previously evident only to those inside the system who could observe moments that occurred over years. Our policy process manifested some striking early failures: underestimating asymptomatic spread, ignoring rapid shifts in epicentres and failing to adequately assess the risk to Canadians.

COVID-19 caught many by surprise – millions of Canadians were not prepared for the lockdown that occurred. Hospitals lacked personal protective equipment (PPE), tests were not available in sufficient numbers and initial actions lagged behind the severity and trajectory of the illness. Given that we went from not having heard of this illness to lockdowns within two and a half months, Canada was far from being the only country where the response lagged. Yet mediocrity should never be our policy goal, and Canada was most definitely not a leader in national-level response.

We know from the documents that were handed over to the House of Commons committee that we failed to capitalize on emerging evidence. By mid-February, we knew that the virus had spread at an aggressive rate through the Diamond Princess cruise ship. By the next week, the World Health Organization had released a fact-finding report from China that highlighted key considerations and stressed the need for speed and decisive actions. Yet even with the scientific evidence rolling in, and real-time case counts such as Worldometer, we failed to take the necessary steps as a country.

For weeks after this, the Public Health Agency of Canada publicly stated that the risk to Canadians was low and that only those who had been to China’s Hubei province needed to be tested and self-isolate. To some extent we were protected from this federal failure to act by federalism – we knew that our cases had shifted to travel from Iran, the United States and Europe only because public health officers in provinces such as British Columbia, Ontario and Alberta did not follow the federal case definition, but instead tested using broader criteria along with surveillance tracing.

The general public had access to this evidence: in the first global pandemic in an internet-powered world, scientific articles and real-time case trackers were available. Yet public health data lagged behind. Even once the country jumped into action in mid-March, tests were not being approved, advice on asymptomatic spread wasn’t consistent with the evidence and PPE was lacking. Ontario saw reporting challenges where local numbers and provincial numbers were inconsistent because of flaws in the data collection system.

While other countries were innovating and adapting, at the federal level we lacked the cutting-edge push to respond to the evidence that this was an event unlike any in our lifetimes. We waited until people were dying to start the preparation process that should have been carried out in January. We also changed the international travel advice in a matter of days: people who had diligently checked a week earlier would have found no advice that travel posed an unusual risk. And while some provinces forged ahead, certain parts of the response such as travel warnings, border procedures, test approvals and large-scale acquisition of PPE needed to happen federally.

While there may well be blame when this is over, it is also likely that most of the individuals involved – politicians, bureaucrats, doctors and administrators – were doing their best. It was the system that was not at its best. The reasons apply to almost all evidence-based policy problems we face, so COVID-19 allows us to illustrate those and start contemplating how we change when this is over.

Talk about a deadly “once in a century” pandemic has been circulating in health and policy circles for years. Even with miraculous medical advances, novel viruses will emerge and some, such as COVID-19, will be highly contagious and deadly. Our Chief Public Health Officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, was in fact an author of a plan for the government of Canada regarding how the country should spring into action when there is a threat of a pandemic (hint: we didn’t follow it). After the 2003 SARS outbreak there was a reaction phase where PPE was stockpiled, but those stockpiles were not managed and many items in them had expired.

So even though the evidence base strongly suggested the need to be ready for an event that would happen in the future, this was not taken seriously. This illustrates one of the first challenges to evidence-based policy: policy problems are seldom aligned with election cycles. Evidence suggesting that you should spend now to prevent something later is often overlooked. Decision-making cycles, for the bureaucrats and the politicians they support, are focused on demonstrating impact in the short term, not preventing problems in the long term.

The second problem that emerged clearly in the pandemic is the fact that decision-makers are often shielded from key information. If ministers are just given a copy-and-pasted line about the risk to Canadians being low, they cannot make informed decisions on what stands before them. The tendency for notes to be generic and watered down is a product of the bureaucratic process. The drafter of a note often only has under an hour, with an expectation of perfection. Then, up to eight people review and edit the document, often with less situational awareness and expertise. What comes out the other side tends to be not that useful to the person receiving it. There is a lot of boilerplate information and not a lot of synthesized emerging evidence.

The obsession with perfect notes means most of the subject-matter experts don’t ever actually get to communicate to the decision-makers what they consider most important. Instead, their input is filtered through senior managers who often take a risk-averse approach, editing for what they think the politician wants to hear, not what the evidence suggests. In New Brunswick, this was concerning enough that the political side went about gathering the evidence themselves and sharing it with the bureaucracy – an illustration of a fundamental failure of the system.

Missing were the kind of documents referred to in security contexts as situational reports, daily digests of the evolving evidence. A situational report is meant to be timely and concise and contain the important details. It can quickly highlight key changes in a rapidly evolving situation, ensuring that everyone involved has a similar understanding of where things stand.

The third problem is that the trifecta of privacy/procurement/security has kept the government in a state where it cannot actually use all of the data tools available. An exponentially growing global virus with unprecedented research capacity thrown at it can only be understood with big data tools and real-time data updates. This led to various situations where the briefings given by public health officials contained information that conflicted with what was available publicly – and the public information turned out to be right.

That our officials were functioning on a delay became painfully evident, even as we all knew speed was of the essence. Updating websites once a week or with a few days’ delay is not acceptable in this age – nor is it necessary to go manually through data inputs as everyone outside of government can develop and use real-time tools. Security, privacy and appropriate procurement are all of the utmost importance, but they can’t stand in the way of solutions that prevent people from dying. This is true not just in this crisis but across issues.

Finally, our government structure itself is not built for evidence-based policy. Bureaucratic reform has mostly just turned a system that came out of the 1880s into a Frankenstein monster. Our departmental structures, hierarchies, decision-making trees and work flows just don’t work in the internet world. While we frequently hear the phrase “whole-of-government,” what that tends to mean is more edits of documents, more lost time, more stress and no clear outcomes. The current method allows for some disaster checks and a fair amount of wordsmithing, but not for multifaceted evidence bases to see the light of day. The effects of this weakness could be seen in Canada’s haphazard response to this crisis. If we had no border limitations, why did we not have other checks and precautions in place? How did we go from hardly any travel warnings to everyone needing to come home immediately?

If we actually want to be able to build evidence-based solutions, we need a reorganization of government, especially on the policy side so that everyone essential to building the evidence base can be pulled together onto one team. Proper government organization could have allowed rapid collaboration in responding to the pandemic. It would also make a difference on issues ranging from child care and domestic violence to climate change and international trade strategies.

This crisis has laid bare what most bureaucrats know: we are not built for proactive adaptation to the evidence base. We have seen some rays of light – from British Columbia, with a strong public health officer, strong collaboration between the health bureaucracy and the politicians and rapid gathering of evidence, to New Brunswick, where the kick from the political side started the discussion by pulling together the evidence when there was concern that federal direction was lacking. At the same time there are numerous danger signs: from the rising acceptance of conspiracy theories and antivax propaganda that encourages citizens to actively distrust the evidence base to missteps in the reopening phase where areas with high caseloads are making choices based on pressure rather than science. I hope the post-mortem doesn’t just focus on pandemic response but takes a more holistic look at government structures for problem solving.

The goal of sexual equality campaigns should be to reduce the importance of gender, not to raise it up. Understanding people on the basis of gender is as misguided as judging them on the basis of sex. Discussions of sex and gender that protect traditional gender roles, at one extreme, and ones that seek to protect limitless gender roles, at the other, are equally harmful and regressive.

When I worked at Status of Women Canada, my coworkers and I would roll our eyes when emails arrived asking, “Yes, but, what about men’s rights?” A traditional feminist answer would be, of course, that historically all rights were men’s rights. But most people sit somewhere between those polarized views.

Gender, as opposed to sex, is a social construct. Sex is based on biology and has always been diverse. Females, males and intersex individuals, as well as a biological range of male and female genetics, hormones and physiology, combine in many ways. Gender, on the other hand, is performative: it is what you do and the image you project. So, while sex is limited by biology, gender is limitless.

The historic norms of “women” and “men” contain harmful extremes. That conversation has centred on the concept of “toxic masculinity,” which I see as an unnecessarily inflammatory way of describing a useful concept – what I would prefer to call precarious masculinity. But there is also an equally problematic version of femininity.

Precarious masculinity is a rigid version of masculinity that hurts men, who feel they must meet an artificial standard: men don’t cry, men use violence to resolve conflicts, men are the “strong silent type.” The prevalence of male suicide, homelessness and incarceration show how that ideal plays out in real life. Men are pressured to be tough, to judge themselves against their capacity to be the sole or dominant breadwinner, and to avoid healthy emotional interactions with romantic partners. Frustrated at a world where they cannot conform to that ideal or impose it on others, they respond in ways that can contribute to intimate partner and sexual violence, usually directed at women and nonbinary people.

As far as problematic femininity is concerned, research shows that women often play a gatekeeper role, reinforcing traditional gender stereotypes. From an early age, girls learn to shame other girls who do not live up to gender norms around sexual activity. This can lead to females facing harm in the form of so-called slut shaming, or the continued revictimization of sexual assault victims.

The case of Rateah Parsons shows how problematic masculinity and femininity reinforce each other. In this tragic case, a 15-year-old Nova Scotia girl was subjected to a rape that her attackers caught on film in 2011. Her eventual suicide was connected as much to the bullying and the sharing of images of her assault by teens of both sexes months after the fact as it was to the assault itself.

Neither men nor women are inherently toxic – this is about behaviours and expectations linked to the performance of an extreme version of masculinity or femininity that causes harm and perpetuates inequality. Problematic masculinity and femininity manifest, in their extreme forms, in a small number of people. It’s just that those people do a lot of damage to others as well as to themselves. The fact that most women have been sexually assaulted, and that at the same time most men have never sexually assaulted anyone, is illustrative of this.

Today, while most Canadians embrace a healthier version of gender identity, problems persist because they are woven into our societal fabric. Partners often make choices as a family unit rather than as individuals, and those choices are deeply influenced by external factors. For example, if a family is in a public space and a baby needs its diaper changed, often the only change table is in the women’s washroom. So even a heterosexual couple with a completely equal division of childcare will make a rational choice for the woman to change the diaper.

While governments and other public institutions have long used incentives – such as tax credits to encourage donations to nonprofits – to influence citizens’ behaviour, they have spent less time studying how incentives and disincentives can reinforce or undermine traditional gender divisions.

For instance, while people think we have a pay equity problem (i.e. different pay for identical work), we actually have a wage gap problem. The pay differences between men and women are mostly not about people in the same job, but rather are attributable to different career paths, differences in promotion and hours worked. Much of this is explained statistically by the fact that women are likely to have to balance unpaid with paid labour in a way that men do not. This is, of course, most dramatic in families with children. Like it or not, a significant proportion of that gap is related to motherhood and childcare options and the choices that women make in light of this uneven burden.

Families make decisions based on their current financial circumstances, not on informed guesses regarding their likely circumstances in 20 years. Suppose a family is faced with losing a significant subsidy or supplement, such as a daycare subsidy or child tax credit, if the lower earner, normally the woman, is offered a higher-paying job. It would make sense, then, that the partners will collectively decide that the woman should not take the job as their family budget would decline. This can lead to career stagnation and reduction of lifetime earnings and pension contributions. The pressure to make ends meet means families relent to real structural pressure to conform to traditional gender roles.

The impact of gender norms on individuals in Canada is pervasive and often negative. True equality will not come from a multitude of gender identities being formalized as equal. This serves only to continue to give gender differences weight and steer people into life choices that are anything but equal. Equality will come when our society recognizes that gender is a social construct, rejects it as a valid means of dividing us, and stops using individuals’ biology to code appropriate behaviour. When individuals are no longer classified by gender, the world will be better for everyone.

Along with the United States, Australia and New Zealand, Canada has long been an anomaly as a country with a national identity centering on immigration. This is changing. According to recent polls, positive attitudes toward immigrants are at their lowest levels since polling started in the 1970s.

Since the Second World War, North American and European countries have used immigration to smooth out demographic booms and busts, fill labour shortages and compete for global talent. For many Western countries, managed migration fueled prosperity, and communities of new arrivals quickly transitioned from outsiders to community leaders.

Canada’s refugee system is guided by the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees, a response to the horrors of the 1930s and 1940s. Postwar Europe faced a new crisis: a combination of postwar displacement and dislocation caused by the dawn of the Cold War. Before then, Canada had traditionally taken in large numbers of refugees – Loyalists fleeing the American Revolution, Irish fleeing the Famine, and Doukhobors and Mennonites fleeing religious persecution – yet they were almost always Christian, European and white, often with explicit exclusions for those who were different. There were dark moments: Canada turned away boatloads of Jews escaping Nazi repression and, before that, refused or limited entry to many based on race, religion and national origin.

Over time Canada eliminated those race-based elements. To become a refugee in Canada today you must fear persecution based on your race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group as outlined in the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act. Coming from a country enduring human rights abuses or war makes you a refugee only if you, personally, can show you are at risk if your return.

Everyone has the right to apply for refugee status from within Canada. Nevertheless, the number seeking asylum has remained stable and low, ranging between 10,000 and 45,000 annually since the Immigration and Refugee Board was created in 1989. Boats filled with refugees do sometimes appear on our shores, rousing fears of a massive influx, but the reality is of a relatively predictable number of refugees crossing at recognized points of entry. Many are granted asylum, but rates vary. Just under 50 per cent were accepted in 2003, while 2017 saw an acceptance rate close to 70 per cent. In the first six months of 2018 the acceptance rate fell back to 56 per cent.

The limited number of asylum seekers is partly due to our unfriendly geography, with cold oceans on three sides and the United States, a country even more attractive to refugees and immigrants than Canada, to the south. Add to that the fact that citizens of countries likely to generate credible refugee claims usually need visas to travel to Canada, visas that are hard to get and checked by airlines prior to boarding. Moreover, those who enter Canada at a legal overland port of entry are covered by the Safe Third Country Agreement with the United States. The agreement requires that you claim refugee status in the first country you enter – either Canada or the United States – unless you have family members in Canada, are an unaccompanied minor or have been charged with or convicted of a crime carrying the death penalty.

The term refugee is a legal construct. A man who fled gang violence in El Salvador may not be a refugee if he was not personally targeted because of his race, religion, nationality or political affiliation. A Syrian woman may have seen war destroy her business but, if the damage was done when her neighbourhood became a battleground and not because she was personally targeted, she has no clear claim to refugee status. It is necessarily an intrusive process that requires telling and retelling one’s worst and most intimate moments to strangers. The traditional refugee paradigm presents the refugee as the perfect victim – vulnerable, without agency and without options. The reality is quite different. Having the resources to escape a modern conflict usually involves some combination of skill, privilege and money.

The new United Nations compact seeks to recognize this new reality. Our refugee system was born in the context of the Second World War, not the Syrian civil war. Refugees today are escaping crackdowns, religious violence at the hands of their own family, localized genocides and wars within the boundaries of one state, often between multiple nonstate actors with widely different levels of organization. The original system, developed by overwhelmingly male politicians from a limited number of countries, did not take into account terrorist organizations, rape as a tool of war or persecution based on sexual orientation, even though those were all a part of World War II. The original policy was designed to deal with large population displacements, internment camps and organized killing bureaucracies, while more recent conflicts have involved a more varied catalogue of horrors.

In 2017, reports of migrants crossing the border through fields, streams and forests, often in the dead of winter, started appearing in Canadian media. Emerging from blizzards without winter clothes, these migrants took advantage of a loophole in the Safe Third Country Agreement by avoiding formal ports of entry, and turned themselves in to police. Human smugglers, always looking for new opportunities to turn misery into profit, used WhatsApp and other social media tools to spread information about this loophole in countries where flight to Canada was an appealing option.

As a result, echoing fears over Syrian and other refugees entering Europe and the “Build the Wall” rhetoric coming from U.S. President Donald Trump, Canada has experienced a populist outcry over illegal entrants and jobs lost by Canadians. In fact, despite extensive media coverage and a proliferation of online memes, the increase was not dramatic by Canadian or international standards, with numbers similar to those seen before the Safe Third Country Agreement was signed. The total of 47,000 claims made in 2018 was not far from the 44,000 made in 2001.

By way of contrast, in 2015, at the height of the Syrian crisis, 1.1 million asylum seekers entered Germany, a number that dropped to just under 200,000 new cases in 2018. Canada welcomes significantly fewer refugees per capita than Sweden, where 600,000 migrants were added over just five years to a population of ten million. Canada is welcoming more refugees than forecast, but not by a lot.

Asylum seekers and refugee claimants are not illegal immigrants. They are not breaking any law. Illegal immigration does happen, but it is not the same thing. You can only become a refugee by getting the Canadian government to define you as one, through a legal process. You are also only a refugee if you are out of your country and, according to the convention, you claim status in the country of asylum or its embassy. Illegal immigrants arrive and disappear, avoiding the law at all costs.

There’s a misconception that refugee processing works like the immigration queue at an airport. Instead, the queue for refugees works just like an emergency room – you are not stealing someone’s appointment if you turn up with a heart attack. If you have a splinter, you’ll have to wait longer to be seen. Your case will be judged based on need, not on when you arrived or whether you arrived by ambulance or on foot.

None of this is an endorsement of the current system. Migrants should not cross the border away from formal entry points, for their safety and that of the country. The best solution, according to former Deputy Minister of Immigration Neal Yates, is to speed up the processing of claims and the management of cases.

The slow speed of processing is an incentive to making claims that have only a small chance of being accepted. Slow processing means you can stay in Canada for years, waiting for your case to be heard or for deportation to take place. The expense and risk of getting to Canada makes sense if you can stay for that long, but not if the wait is only months or weeks. If federal politicians were serious about immigration reform, they would embrace Yates’s recommendations.

The federal Conservatives have opted for populism over good policy, calling for crackdowns. Initially the governing Liberals supported the current system, with Justin Trudeau saying in 2017, “To those fleeing persecution, terror and war, Canadians will welcome you.” More recently, however, the Liberals are raising concerns about “asylum shopping.” While this issue alone isn’t necessarily enough to ring alarm bells, it is not a one-off issue. The CAQ won in Quebec with promises of lowering immigration. Ontario Premier Doug Ford has cut legal aid for refugees and immigrants. Perhaps most worrisome is the moral outrage expressed by Conservative leader Andrew Scheer over the UN Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration.

The Compact, a benign nonbinding document updating the international legal migration regime, proposed concrete improvements to the system. Despite the Compact’s explicit reinforcement of national sovereignty, Scheer called on Canada not to sign, on the grounds that the Compact would cede control of our immigration system to UN foreign bureaucrats.

Scheer joined politicians around the world using the same false message. Italy, the United States, Australia, Austria and some eastern European countries refused to sign the Compact. Canadian far-right and other protest groups, such as the Yellow Vest Canada movement, spread conspiracy myths, portraying the UN as a malevolent force controlled by globalists, the “deep state” and Jewish American-Hungarian philanthropist George Soros, cheating people out of what they deserve. There is nothing new here: the same accusations were made a century ago against the League of Nations.

Memes abound linking the flow of irregular migrants and the Compact as proof that there is a conspiracy against “regular Canadians” and a dark force in control of our government. The Conservatives’ recent embrace of anti-immigration rhetoric gives credibility to these claims. Perhaps surprisingly, the Liberals’ 2019 budget took the next step. Fearing electoral losses in the face of the SNC-Lavallin scandal and looking to shore up support in Quebec, Prime Minister Trudeau has done an about-face, removing the right of refugee claimants who have sought asylum elsewhere to have a hearing in Canada.

These flash points illustrate the dangers we face. Mixed in with the conspiracy theories, there is much legitimate criticism and debate. People supporting reasonable ideas, such as new pipeline construction, are exposed to misinformation campaigns almost perfectly mirroring nationalist propaganda from the early 20th century. At that time industrialization was redefining work and society. We are at another moment of global recalibration based on technological and political disruption. Advances in artificial intelligence are shifting the ground under all of us, disturbing the long-established consensus on many policies, including immigration.

The political expression of these fears is becoming an international phenomenon, a loose nationalist alignment stretching from Steve Bannon to Marine Le Pen to Ontario Proud to Nigel Farage. Disseminated globally and without intermediaries through social media, falsehoods are spread and, stripped of their toxic context, implanted in mainstream discussions around economic development and job creation. From there, the lies enter the discourse of mainstream political parties and, finally, drive policy responses. From Russian bots to Yellow Vests to the Conservatives to Justin Trudeau.

Ironically given their obsession with identity and difference, nationalist movements have always had many things in common. Suspicion of international cooperation and a rejection of the consensus on immigration are constants. Nationalism has always offered simple solutions to complex problems. When workers feel they are not getting what they deserve, when they are worried about their future and that of their children, many will look for and embrace easy explanations.

Canada’s slide away from an evidence-based immigration regime may appeal to such voters, but neither party is addressing the real issue. The proposed amendments will do little to stem the flow at the border. One official, speaking to the National Post, said the proportion of irregular entrants who came to the United States on a temporary visa and headed straight for the border was between 60 and 70 per cent. The Liberals’ proposed changes bar people who claimed refugee status in any country with which Canada has signed an agreement. This has been justified as a restrictive clause that only covers members of the “Five Eyes” intelligence organization – Canada, the United States, the U.K., Australia and New Zealand – but future governments could sign such agreements with any country. Theoretically, if a gay Bruneian, coming from a country that just made homosexuality punishable by death, was first denied refugee status in country X where homosexuality is illegal, that person could then be denied a hearing in Canada if the Canadian government had signed an agreement with country X. The Liberal plan focuses on stopping people, including legitimate refugees, from entering the country.

Canada’s parties had long agreed that managed immigration is central to Canada’s success. Refugee systems mitigate the disruptions caused by migration and allow us to simultaneously address labour market challenges while protecting the vulnerable. We can leverage the appeal of our welcoming society to find people who have already shown they have the tenacity, resiliency and creativity to survive the unimaginable and to make it to our borders. Yes, we have to make sure the benefits of immigration are understood and the inevitable social tensions it creates are mitigated. But that does not mean we need to give in to narrow fears fueled by nationalism.

Canada has plentiful resources, secure borders, excellent internal security and high levels of education. What we don’t have is people. The conversation in 2019 should revolve around that need, and how to satisfy it without compromising Canadian values. With an election coming in October, we will soon see how the country’s leaders rise to this challenge.

March 2019: jetlagged and wandering the streets of Kyiv, a city I only see every few years. Familiar but disconcerting. Ukraine has been a country on the edge of the hardening line between East and West. Even when the city is calm, there’s a tension in the air.

I arrived in Kyiv for the first time in 2004, to monitor the election following the so-called Orange Revolution. Pro-Western protestors had forced a rerun of a vote rigged by the pro-Russian government; Viktor Yanukovych had been declared the winner but the Supreme Court threw out the result, citing widespread fraud. The Central Electoral Commission itself was suspected of altering results by entering faked information through a parallel computer system.

I had just moved to Toronto after a year working with refugees in Cairo, not sure of my path. I had graduated from law school before leaving for Egypt and was finishing my first term of an MA program in Immigration Studies. I applied to be one of 400 Canadians monitoring the second round of Ukraine’s presidential election and, to my surprise, I was selected. Along with MPs, election officials, former military officers and Ukrainian-Canadian activists, I spent two weeks watching a country decide its future.

I was 26 when I first walked around Independence Square, then filled with tent cities, stall after stall of orange-themed merchandise and endless rallies. This democracy being fought for, the democracy being practised, was new, unformed and youthful – a reflection of the age of many protesters and the rough edges of a country not used to speaking up for itself. Everything in Ukraine in 2004 was still a little bit Soviet. Buildings were past their prime. Few people spoke English.

I was deployed to the east, to Lugansk. Ten years later, in 2014, the area would be the scene of fighting between Ukrainian and Russian forces and today it is the self-styled Independent Republic of Lugansk, a region given limited recognition only by Russia. In 2004 the manipulation was more subtle, as evidenced by the massive voter fraud in the first round of the presidential election. After flying into an abandoned airport and sleeping in a hotel with no heat, I set out with another observer. We concentrated on hospitals and nursing homes, and followed the mobile voting boxes which served citizens unable to make it to the polls. Despite the hostilities and fraud in the earlier round of voting, election day was calm and the process credible.

Fast forward to 2012, and parliamentary elections. This time I went west, to Lutsk, a city near the Polish border, and my team focused on regular polling stations. An observer, as the title implies, spends a lot of time watching. You look around, and you record any person or procedure that does not follow the rules. You know that, in isolation, the observations of any one team are meaningless; only the aggregate can indicate whether an election is fair. Training issues and human error are common, as they are in Canadian or any other elections. With experience you can improve your ability to tell the difference between an honest mistake and attempted fraud – or at least you think you’re improving. Again, it doesn’t matter: your job is to note problems, not to analyze or fix them.

Time is of the essence. While driving between polling stations you send in your observations with a cell-connected tablet so the central team in Kyiv can look for patterns. That team coordinates with other election monitoring teams, local and international, with the media and with Ukrainian politicians, election administrators, security forces and the international community. When the day is done the results collected from all those observing the process are compiled and shared, creating a deeper picture of the election.

Despite fair elections in 2004 and 2008, what stuck out in 2012 was how many people were still not used to the secret ballot. Election workers spent a lot of time coaxing citizens, especially the elderly, to vote alone and to keep their vote secret. Elections are connected to the political and social structures they are part of; unless a population is aware of their rights and how to exercise them, an election day can be error-free but still offer no real indication of the underlying health of a democracy.

Two years later I was back for another presidential election following another revolution. Yanukovych, the failed candidate from 2004, was legitimately elected president in 2010 but was thrown from office and fled to Russia in early 2014. In 2004 Ukraine asserted its independence; in 2012 it seemed ready to enter the ranks of reasonably clean, reasonably dull democracies. The 2014 elections were different. In response to Yanukovych’s ouster, Russia had annexed Crimea and instigated widespread violence across the east – only 20 per cent of polling stations opened in the Donbass region. Back in Lutsk, in the west, things were calm – though this may have been a reflection of the fact that my evacuation plan was simply to drive the few kilometres into Poland.

International attention focused on the risks of wider Russian involvement and a wider war. While election observation attracts people generally interested in world affairs, that is not necessarily useful when it comes to doing your job. Broader issues seem far away as you focus on the layout of polling stations, or how certain officials complete certain forms.

This election, I paid special attention to what happened after the votes were counted. In Ukraine, as in Canada, observers are locked in when polling ends. You watch the election officials get to work, sorting and then counting the ballots. Unlike Canada, Ukrainian elections feature long lists of candidates, meaning there are often recounts. In a nod to the country’s Soviet past, after repeated sorting and tallying, the information is recorded by hand; many copies are made; and election officials, candidate representatives and domestic election monitors sign a copy to verify that the results are true and accurate. This takes many hours – snacks are advisable, bathroom breaks are often not allowed, and you chart the passage of time by watching clouds of cigarette smoke fill the room, slowly lowering from the ceiling as midnight passes.

Despite the drama of the international context, the 2014 election in Lutsk was peaceful. Russian-linked hackers announced they had compromised the new IT system that was supposed to increase transparency by posting real-time results, but their claim only increased confidence in the final, official outcome. In the east elections were not held at all, showing an interesting limit to Russian interference: democratic institutions could be manipulated, but attacks on polling stations were still seen as counterproductive.

Fast forward to 2019 and the first round of the presidential election. This time I was deployed to Pervomyask, the old site of the Soviet intercontinental ballistic missile station, in Mykolaiv Oblast (regional government division) which touches the Black Sea. This time, in Kyiv and beyond, there were echoes of the violence of 2014 – plaques and monuments honouring those who lost their life in the Maidan and Ukrainian soldiers who died fighting Russia and its proxies in the east.

This election was not a rejection of the old Soviet order, as 2004 had been. Then, first-time voters had been born under Communism. A poignant moment in the most recent election came when my observing partner questioned the continued problem of older voters not understanding the importance of the secret ballot, wondering whether this was a Soviet holdover. My interpreter responded, “I don’t know – I was never under the Soviet system.” She went on to talk about what youth wanted and why they were more engaged in politics this election, even though that engagement took the form of support for Volodymyr Zelensky, a presidential candidate – now President-elect – whose only political experience was playing the president of Ukraine on a national comedy show.

OPORA, a Ukrainian nonpartisan electoral monitoring organization, runs a parallel vote tabulation process similar to an exit poll to add a layer of security to election results: if the results at the local level don’t add up, OPORA can quickly identify the areas where problems took place. Again, in 2019, election day was largely uneventful. Problems with training and procedures continued to raise questions, but my team agreed with our mission: the election met international standards.

Ukraine, as seen in four snapshots over four elections and 15 years, has evolved. Where in 2004 the international community led the monitoring effort, in 2019 Ukrainians were in charge. This was not always easy to accept; on election day in March I saw the blue fatigues of the ultraright National Corps, who had threatened violence if they didn’t approve of the conduct of the election. Members of the Corps’s NGO wing, recognized as domestic election monitors, added to my sense of unease even though, in the end, they did not interfere.

Despite continued corruption, conflict and external threats, despite the slow growth of toxic nationalism as evidenced by the rise of the Corps, Ukraine’s institutions have strengthened. That it has just had a peaceful transfer of power in the face of the ongoing conflict with Russia is testament to that. The election of an actor as president may be taken as a sign of naiveté, or a hopeful sign of confidence and a willingness to embrace change despite the looming threat of Russia to the east and a crumbling West. My more modest hope, for whenever I next return, is that the no-smoking signs in polling stations will be enforced.

It is no coincidence that Canada has, to date, been mostly untouched by Daesh (Islamic State) threats to attack Coalition countries on their home soil. Among the factors are a well-developed immigration system, reasonable gun control, a smaller population and physical distance from today’s sources of terror. Less visible but also important are integration programs that, I argue here, should be understood as an expression of Canada’s effort to create a cohesive society.

The news over the past two years has focused on terrorist threats, attacks and plots. And indeed, there have been more attacks than in the period immediately preceding. Although there have not been as many as in the 1970s when the bloody high-water mark was reached among OECD countries as a result of Marxist, separatist and Palestinian attacks, there has been a dramatic worldwide upswing in terror attacks since Daesh declared its caliphate in 2014. However, outside its epicentre in the Middle East and Africa, the Daesh brand of terrorism has spread unevenly in terms of destruction and the number of local followers.

It is worth stating the obvious: the overwhelming majority of immigrants are not terrorists. However, a tiny minority arrive in their host countries as members of an active or sleeper terror cell. This has always been, and always will be, a risk to be mitigated, not eliminated. From Fenian raiders in the 19th century to Daesh militants posing as refugees, an open society like Canada will always have to live with a certain level of carefully managed risk from new arrivals. Security forces will expend great energy to disrupt the activities of the tiny minority who are terrorists.

Efforts to integrate new Canadians

All immigrants face barriers to integration with their host society. This is why immigrants are central to successfully combating radicalization. Integration increases resiliency among not just new arrivals but all those who feel excluded or aggrieved for any reason. Simply put, integration is one of our most effective tools for combating violent radicalization.

We often talk about terrorism in the context of politicized religion, but individual radicalization is similar to the recruitment process that leads people to join gangs or other criminal organizations. It is not a switch that is turned on and off but a process influenced by a range of factors. While the rise of Daesh has unarguably accelerated this process, not all individuals are prone to radicalization. People are lured by opportunities to acquire money, adventure, prestige, sex or group acceptance. Contextual factors such as lack of economic opportunity and a perception of not belonging are also significant. The more mainstream society makes these benefits difficult to obtain, the more radicalization becomes a natural course.

Canada has a long history of formal programs to integrate immigrants. Following the influx of Vietnamese boat people in the 1970s, the government of Canada provided services targeted at the new arrivals in the context of a broader move toward multiculturalism. As patterns of immigration to Canada have changed, integration programs havve become more complex. Today, in every province except Quebec (where similar services are delivered by the provincial government), the federal government offers comprehensive settlement services to integrate new Canadians into school, work and their communities.

From the boat people onwards, a foundation of integration has been free language training in French or English, helping individuals to access services, improve their job prospects and integrate into their new communities. Labour market supports provide a range of services: résumé and interview coaching; credential recognition for the highly skilled; and improving skills, such as literacy and document comprehension, essential to those with lower education levels. Information and orientation services range from handouts containing useful information on rights and responsibilities and how to file tax returns to settlement agency staff working directly with newcomers to navigate school registration or getting a health card. Programs for children and young people are supplemented by support from provincial school systems. These include school-based settlement workers and after-school and summer leadership training.

These services cost the federal government a total of approximately $1 billion annually, with significant complementary provincial investments. This presents a political challenge: many voters object to money being spent on those who choose or are forced to move to this country – especially as there is often no distinction drawn between services to refugees and to other classes of immigrants. Yet this amount is offset in various ways. Every applicant for permanent residency has to pay a fee.1 Temporary residents and many visitors are required to pay for visas. Moreover, there are long-term benefits derived from the taxes immigrants pay, and from their spending on goods and services. Overall, immigrants make a net contribution to government finances, increase business innovation and are more likely to own businesses.2 Indeed, these services offer further benefits, simply by making immigrants feel welcome.

The international context

Canada is a global model of integration3 and our attitude toward newcomers has formed a strong part of Canada’s official identity since the 1970s – part of the multicultural package every government has embraced, albeit with different levels of enthusiasm. In the 2010 National Settlement Outcomes Survey, most immigrants surveyed expressed satisfaction with their life in Canada and felt they had a solid knowledge of their rights and responsibilities as Canadians. While rated only in sixth place on the Migration Policy Index,4 Canada stands in stark and positive contrast to other OECD countries facing current serious threats of terrorism.

France, for example, scores much lower on the Migration Policy Index than Canada (17th place out of 38) and suffers integration challenges that routinely explode into crime and terrorism. France has had high levels of immigration from North Africa since the 1930s, and these communities have long suffered from disproportionately high levels of unemployment, crime and inadequate housing and education. In 2005 there were a series of high-profile riots across the country that included the burning of buildings and cars.

The 2005 riots are seen as the point at which resentment began to change to revolt. We are all familiar with the rise of radical Islam in France over the last decade, with locally radicalized young people working with recent arrivals, including some who arrived with the flood of refugees from Syria, the broader Middle East and Africa that began in 2014.

Both France and Germany have historically denied full status to some migrants. Until recently Turkish “guest workers” in Germany could not become citizens even if they and their parents, or even their grandparents, were born in Germany. While this exclusion was addressed in the 1990s, its legacy is a norm according to which some people within the country’s borders are regarded as foreigners, even with more open attitudes to integration. In short, the status of migrant becomes a barrier in and of itself.

While there are stark differences between the Syrian refugee picture in Europe and the picture in Canada, we need remember that this story started before the influx – with foreign fighters flowing out of Europe into the conflict zone in vast numbers. Those situations were, at least in part, driven by decades of immigration policy that kept minorities marginalized.

By contrast, in Canada integration is fundamentally a process that immigrants control. They can become citizens relatively rapidly, and there are services to help them become part of Canadian society in a way that suits them within the parameters of the law. Arriving in the country is the starting point in a journey that ends in one’s becoming Canadian. A contributing factor is Canada’s capacity to maintain a managed migration system where most immigrants are selected for their ability to establish themselves in Canada and our system tries to select individuals who have a link to Canada already through family, education, private sponsors or job offers.

The integration picture in Canada is not entirely rosy. Our labour market consistently devalues foreign work experience, we see worryingly high unemployment rates among young male immigrants in particular, and there are many, especially refugees, who have not fully integrated by the time they stop being eligible for federal integration services. We have had ugly moments, with hate crimes against immigrants, Muslims in particular, on the rise and an increase in intolerant discourse such as the fallout from the niqab debate during and after the 2015 election. While most polls show positive views toward immigrants, polls that reveal concern with immigrant integration have become more common.

Overall, our legal system and political culture allow immigrants to become Canadian without having to forfeit their own beliefs and practices, so long as they remain within the limits of Canadian law. The result is that new Canadians are less prone to radicalization. They become citizens who feel like trusted parts of their communities and are willing to engage the police or other state actors if they become aware of suspicious activities or individuals. Because newcomers are allowed to become part of our country and communities as quickly as possible, they become allies in fighting a common threat.

It is natural to seek points of familiarity in a strange environment, so immigrants, on arrival in a new country, will group together. If walls are built around new arrivals those barriers will harden from both sides. Within immigrant communities the absence of exposure to the new country will make it easier to transplant elements from the immigrants’ countries of origin. The more defined the line between immigrant communities and the rest of Canada, whether that line is expressed in communication barriers or cultural practices that appear strange to outsiders, the harder integration becomes.

Maintaining openness and trust

It is of note that a significant proportion of attempted or successful terrorist attacks in Canada had nothing to do with immigrants or their children. In addition, many of those arrested were intercepted because of tips from community members. The community reaction from Muslims after the Via Rail plot was exposed by members of the community demonstrates the importance of integration. “At the end of the day, it’s not how you dress, it’s how you think,” Muhammad Robert Heft, a Muslim community leader in Ontario, told the Toronto Sun in April 2013. “In our community we may look a little different, but in our hearts we love Canada. It’s our country. It’s our tribe. We want safety for all Canadians regardless of their religion.”5

A similar identification with the Canadian community is necessary for families to turn in loved ones they see heading down the path to radicalization. This has happened in multiple cases where youth who tried to leave Canada to become foreign fighters were turned in by their parents. Reporting your own child to the police requires both a high level of trust in Canadian institutions and the knowledge of how to connect with them.

Integration programs view integration as a two-way street. As individuals adapt to the communities they now call home, those communities simultaneously adapt to them. This not only is societally enriching but also gives us a crucial weapon in the fight against international terrorism.

Terrorism is a psychological phenomenon, not only for those recruited to terrorist groups but also for those affected. Part of the challenge is placing the acts in context. Even with the high-profile and deadly attacks in Paris in 2015, the annual death toll from terror in France is under 300, similar in scale to the largest Canadian terrorist attack on record, the Air India bombing of 1985. This is only a little over half the number of annual deaths by drowning in Canada, and one sixth the number of deaths caused by cars. Yet Canadians fear terrorism more than swimming or going for a Sunday drive. As RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson has said, Canada has a zero tolerance attitude toward the risk of terrorism. Terrorism is a fear of the unknown, inflated when those who seem to be the threat are unknowable or different. The threat from terrorist groups is also inflated when their own narrative of who and what they are is accepted at face value.

By including and, more importantly, knowing and integrating diverse newcomers, we will no longer see immigrants as a mass of dangerous outsiders who hate us. We will be reminded every day that terrorists do not represent those they claim to speak for but are, as President Obama put it, a small group of loud losers.

This attitude of informed openness will serve us well if we have a day like those recently endured by the people of Istanbul, Beirut, Nice, Paris and Brussels. We have to remind ourselves that attacks by a small group of people do not jeopardize our existence. Unless we let them.

Continue reading “Integration of immigrants: A tool against terror”